HK professors quit Shenzhen model campus

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2011, 12:00am


When Zhu Qingshi was appointed by the Shenzhen government as the founding president of the South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) two years ago, he looked to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) for inspiration.

But now three HKUST professors have launched a scathing attack on Zhu, accusing him of leading the fledging university away from its original goal of becoming a top research-oriented university.

In a statement published recently in the mainland weekly newspaper Southern Weekly, HKUST chemistry professor Li Xiaoyuan, electronic and computer engineering professor Li Zexiang and mathematics professor Li Jianshu said that the university had yet to put in place a good faculty nor had it developed adequate oversight and accountability.

'The university has strayed from the path that a research-oriented university should follow,' said the professors, who resigned as SUSTC advisers earlier this year. 'That is not good for the university, for Shenzhen or for the country's embrace of education reform.'

They also accused Zhu and the university of leading the students in a pointless snub of the national college entrance exams.

The allegations have fuelled debate over how SUSTC should become a model for much-needed reform of the mainland's higher education system. There is growing public discontent with low teaching standards and rampant bureaucracy at mainland universities.

The three HKUST professors' allegations have also raised concerns whether SUSTC will ever achieve its intended goals.

As a pet project of the Shenzhen government to boost the city's competitive edge in research and development, SUSTC was allowed to break ranks with most mainland universities, which are controlled by a Communist Party committee that also appoints university presidents.

However, when the Ministry of Education gave the go-ahead in December for the university, it did not authorise it to begin recruiting students. This thwarted a plan Zhu had been championing to recruit post-graduate students from the beginning, to attract top academics from around the world.

Increasingly frustrated over what is saw as outdated regulations and red tape, the university decided to go ahead with recruitment on its own, taking in students and offering them degree certificates other than the ones accredited by the ministry, which Zhu believed would help to attract the brightest students.

The first 45 students who were admitted to SUSTC in February refused to sit the national college entrance exams that they were told to take this month, a pre-condition for obtaining an accredited degree from a mainland university.

The three professors said that the students, including gifted pupils as young as 10, were being used as pawns by Zhu's administration 'to launch a revolution instead of reform' with no regard for the students' interests.

Li Jianshu said that he joined the advisory panel under an agreement between HKUST and SUSTC to advise Zhu on the new school, but quit after they exhausted 'all possible means to get the message across to move things forward', including their proposal for special selection committees for each field of study. Instead, Zhu snubbed them by not offering a definitive answer. Li said that HKUST professors had been reluctant to speak out until they learned that the students had decided not to sit the exams as required.

'We are concerned because they are not attending a school like Harvard, but one as messy and ill-prepared as SUSTC, where there isn't even a curriculum plan,' said Li. 'Under such circumstances, sitting the exams will provide some sort of security for them [to go to other colleges].'

Li said he could not predict which direction the university would take, but it should at least return to the basic aims of any decent university - recruiting good teachers and developing outstanding curriculums.

The university declined a request for interviews with students. Zhu also declined to comment on the professors' statement, saying it was not the right time to discuss the matter with the media.